Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan – Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan
Book cover: Raami and her mother stand under a banyan tree

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus.

Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.

Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

I wanted to read a story about a Buddhist MC for one of the squares in Asian Lit Bingo, which is why my choice fell on In the Shadow of the Banyan. I buddy-read this story together with Wendy (What The Log), check out Wendy’s review.

It’s an #ownvoices story.

I never learnt that much about the Khmer Rouge regime, so a lot of this story was new to me. It’s outrageous to learn how much people have to go through and still they are not treated as people who need help.

Raami is disabled (she had polio as a child), and this is not ignored in the narrative. There’s quite a lot of ableism against Raami due to her disability. Raami is also the narrator in this story, and her written voice might seem older than she is, however I think it makes sense, seeing as she has lived through experiences that other children have never had to go through. It was interesting and heart-breaking to read her musings about her father’s and mother’s thoughts on certain subjects.

There are beautiful tales told about certain natural phenomena. I especially loved the one that explained why there is thunder and lightning – it’s adorable.

There’s one foreshadowing scene in here, where Raami’s grandmother murmurs how many people will remain, referring to the shade of the banyan tree. I didn’t realise this while reading, but some time later, it all of a sudden came to me that she was right. This really hit me because it makes the scene even more sad in retrospect.

The word “crazy” is used once, which I didn’t like.

This was a difficult and sad read, and due to it being inspired by the author’s life, you, as a reader, realise that real people have experienced these events. Due to the narrator being a young child, it could be suitable for middle grade readers, however I’d suggest that parents check the book first or read it along with their children, as it is very realistic.

Trigger warnings: murder, ableism, violence, genocide, war, starvation, forced labour, death, whipping of children, suicide.

4 stars

Have you read In the Shadow of the Banyan? How did you feel while reading it?


5 thoughts on “Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan – Vaddey Ratner

  1. I haven’t read this book, but I have read Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts which is about an adult woman returning to Cambodia for the first time after leaving as a child refugee. It sounds like both books complement each other well!


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